A Beluga Whale Learned to Speak Dolphin to Make Friends
Linguists tend to agree that the best way to learn a foreign language is through complete immersion. A beluga whale just proved them right.
Two months after being relocated to a pen with bottlenose dolphins, a beluga whale began whistling like them. She eventually dropped her own beluga “speech patterns” to communicate with her new neighbors, according to researchers from the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.
In her previous habitat, the beluga had been surrounded by other whales. But after she was relocated to Crimea’s Dolphinarium Koktebel in 2013, she was the only whale around. In order to adapt to her new peers, the whale picked up the bottlenose dolphin language, including the pod’s individual whistles, assigned to each dolphin like a name.
The mimicry is a useful adaptation skill — and one that can be found across species, including humans, according to the researchers.
"The case reported here, as well as other instances of imitation and whistle sharing in dolphins described in the literature, may be considered as vocal convergence between socially bonded individuals,” they wrote in their research, published in Animal Cognition this month. "With some exceptions, call convergence is suggested to provide recognition of a group and strengthening of social bonds between its members."
Basically the beluga had to learn another language to fit in, remain social, and make friends.
However there’s still one unknown: scientists are unable to determine if the beluga actually understands what she is chirping out to the dolphins or if she’s just learned to mimic their sounds.